For a long time, Max Brook’s Zombie Survival Guide was kept in the humour section of the bookstore. I read it, it isn’t funny. That’s not to say that it’s not a good book, but it’s not exactly written as humorous, nor is it supposed to be taken as such. No such problem however with Zombieland, an explicit zombie comedy that sums up the immortal words of R.E.M., “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” Normally, the apocalypse is cause to be reminded of the loss of something, but in the case of Zombieland it’s an opportunity to gain something: new friends, new perspective and new talents.
In lesser hands, Zombieland would have come off dumb as an ox. Whoever said, “Dying is easy… Comedy is hard,” would also surely concede that, on film, killing is easy, but horror is hard. Combing the two is perilous at best, and really only one movie comes to mind as a successful blending of both horror and comedy: Shaun of the Dead. Interestingly, that film was also zombie-related so it begs the question: are zombies inherently comical? Well, there are certainly always comedic opportunities so far as zombies are concerned, but the mix of mirth and menace is achieved only in small doses and sometimes it seems it’s as if by accident.
There’s nothing accidental about Zombieland though, scripted and acted to perfection, it moves along briskly and hilariously by taking all those zombie conventions and mining them for maximum laughs. In “Zombieland” (AKA: the post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested America) one survives by following the rules, and one of those rules is no names; it only helps to facility attachments that you may not be able to afford. Still, the introverted young college student Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) and the extroverted zombie hunter Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) form an alliance and head east. Later they run across Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), a pair of grifter sisters, who despite jacking Columbus and Tallahassee twice, end up growing on the pair.
It’s a crazy, mismatched road movie comedy in a zombie world, and the way is lead by four great actors, especially Woody Harrelson who takes up the part of Tallahassee with the relish of Slim Pickens riding an atom bomb. His obsessive mission to find the last Twinkie known to mankind is a Don Quixote-like quest with Eisenberg’s Columbus as his unwitting Sancho Panza. Ingenious use of flashbacks show the characters before the zombie-pocalypse provide great little asides, but the film never loses focus from the main road and not only keeps you laughing with outrageous kills and character moments, but can also be occasionally scary. And what’s more is that the two rather naturally go together, and flow seamlessly into the other.
The focus is on the main four, which makes for a unique zombie film experience by not introducing a sprawling cast that makes you wait to see who gets eaten and in what order. But if the comedic skills of proven actors like Harrelson, Eisenberg and Stone aren’t enough for you, there is an extended cameo by Bill Murray in what has to be one of the worst kept secrets in recent casting. But I don’t think foreknowledge diminishes your enjoyment of the scene any, and though it at times strains as an advertisement for Ghostbusters (and by proxy, Ghostbusters 3?), it’s still a killer scene both figuratively and literally. But that’s just one standout scene of a movie that’s quite nearly excellent from beginning to end.